Monday, July 23, 2007

Prayer and Silence in Grand Island

by Ryan Anderson
Some disturbing news coming out of Grand Island today:
Tension came to a head at a Grand Island meatpacking plant in June, when Jama Mohamed said his desire for 10 minutes to pray at sunset was met with shouting.
After he left the production line and began praying, Mohamed said, supervisors took his prayer mat, pulled him up by his collar and sent him crying to a lead supervisor, who fired him.

"I told him, 'Look, I know I am in America and I know in America there is a freedom of religion for everybody to practice their religion. . . . And as long as you fulfill that — as long as you let me pray — I will always work for you,'" Mohamed, 28, said last week through an interpreter. "And he said, 'No, that's not acceptable — your prayers are not acceptable here. You're here to work, not pray.'"

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has drafted a complaint to federal officials that is awaiting the signatures of dozens of Muslim Somali workers who say they were fired or harassed by supervisors at a Grand Island meatpacking plant for trying to pray at sunset.


[Mohammad] Rage [of the Omaha Somali-American Community Organization] said at least two dozen workers have been fired since May by Swift for praying. Swift disputes that number.

[Donald] Selzer [Swift attorney] said three Somali workers were fired for walking off the line without permission, not for praying. "These people are absolutely entitled to pray, and they should not be interfered with for doing so," Selzer said. "The only situations that I've been made aware of are people that walk off the job without permission, and that's a different kind of an issue."

Dan Hoppes, president of Local 22 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said he sees regular lists of those fired from the plant. Nothing in those lists raised his suspicions, he said, but he said the plant — which employs about 3,000 people in all and about 150 Somalis — generally has high turnover.

Hoppes said prayer breaks are not part of the contract, but he said he plans to revisit the issue with plant officials when the contract is renegotiated in 2010.

Rima Kapitan, a Chicago-based staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Swift has been "unwilling to work with us to create a solution where the workers can pray."

Kapitan said Swift rejected her group's suggestion to allow the Somalis who work evenings to leave in small shifts to avoid disrupting lines. The prayer must be done within a 45-minute window surrounding sunset, according to Muslim prayer rules.

Selzer and Hoppes said the company suggested phasing evening workers to shifts earlier in the day that don't interrupt prayer times. "We're perfectly happy to try to pursue that angle so that we don't have this conflict," Selzer said, but noted many people prefer the second shift.

Somali workers also complain that other workers are granted bathroom or smoking breaks and say prayer time should be granted in the same way.

Mohamed said it is important for Muslims to pray within scheduled times and not to postpone prayers or say them early. "I would never forgive myself and God would not forgive me if I do not pray on time because I want to earn some money," he said.
The cliche, in this situation, would be to exclaim: "if only this were happening to Christian employees, there would be an outraged outcry in this nation!" As with all cliches, such rhetoric has little power to persuade... it's a dog whistle, heard only by those who want to hear it.

But it's true, damn it. The mainstream media and the public at large wouldn't accept such actions against Christianity because such actions are unacceptable. Not because Christians have or demand special protection, but because all people of all faiths demand and deserve respect. As well they should.

Respect is a basic human right, one guarded not by the government but by the community. Our community. You and me. If we don't provide it, if we don't protect it, then we don't deserve it.

We've been derelict in that duty, and (for now) the Muslim community is paying our penalty. It's certainly disappointing to see the union official comfortably waiting until 2010 to seek such basic and fundamental reform. It's even more disappointing to see the Swift company refuse to engage with CAIR on a compromise that might serve the interests of all.

But what would be absolutely devastating is if this story were to fall through the cracks; never to be heard and never to be resolved. It does us no good to pretend this is simply a Muslim problem: it isn't. It's a worker's rights problem, it's a problem of religious freedom... it's our problem. We own it. And we will be shaped by how we act -or fail to act- in response.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prayer is great and I do it at work every day. But it is done silently and takes very little if anything away from my production. I however do not work a production job so I can see Swifts point. they have a line to run and if one person doesn't man their post it clogs the entire operation.
I wonder how you would feel if you were on a bus running late and the driver decided he needs to pray for ten minutes. He then stops, gets off the bus and prays for ten mins. In reality it is much more than ten minutes. Probably takes awhile to remove meat packing garmets and grab a prayer mat.
Stop the witch hunt here. We have a company trying to add to our economy and compete globally. I think they were very up front about what is expected and those employees knew (or should have) the rules before they started.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Normally, I would be in agreement. but it seems there are other options than expecting the company to stop work to accomodate a fraction of employees. For example - those folks could move to earlier shifts that don't coincide with sunset. But it seems like they don't want to. Well, they do have options even if they don't want to take them.

If a devoutly religious Christian had the choice to work on a Monday or Tuesday but choose Sunday and then complained he had to work, I wouldn't feel that sorry for him either.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

"Stop the witch hunt here. We have a company trying to add to our economy and compete globally. I think they were very up front about what is expected and those employees knew (or should have) the rules before they started."

I'm on no hunt, but please excuse me if I acknowledge injustice when it occurs.

I'm not unsympathetic to the company's needs, but shouldn't they show some sympathy for their employees in return? If the company can accomodate unscheduled bathroom and smoking breaks, certainly they can keep the line running if a couple workers left and returned in ten minute shifts.

Now, I'm no expert on running a production line, and I am thus in no position to propose any specific solution. But it seems a compromise is possible, and nothing is solved by humiliating the employees and stonewalling their community. According to this article, only 5% of the plant's workforce is Somali. Is there really no way a production line can continue running without, say, 2% of its workers, even for just 45 minutes? Really? What do they do during flu season?

These are questions I can't really answer... like I said, I'm no expert. But I do know a thing or two about common decency, and the Swift Company hasn't shown it.

"For example - those folks could move to earlier shifts that don't coincide with sunset. But it seems like they don't want to. Well, they do have options even if they don't want to take them."

That's certainly one solution, assuming there are sufficient openings and there are no other conflicts in the employee's schedule. That's assuming too much for many workers.

Again, I'm not unsympathetic to the company's interests, but why not treat Swift with the same skepticism you've shown the employees? Why are you so convinced compromise is impossible?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, the company could accommodate the employees who wish to pray during the work day, but then it would have to allow every other worker an equal time away from the production line during the work day for any or no reason at all. If the employees don't like the rules let them work somewhere else.

This is much like the problem in the Twin Cities with cab drivers of North African descent who choose not to give rides to any passengers who happen to be carrying alcohol. My right to practice my religion, whether it be christian or muslim or witchcraft, stops when it interferes with the rights of others. While I am sympathetic in general to immigrants who come from many disparate cultures, when you come to this country you should expect you culture to take a back seat where it conflicts with the majority culture. You can practice it in your home and no one will bother you, but don't expect to bring a prayer mat, or a pipe full of ganja, to work.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

"Well, the company could accommodate the employees who wish to pray during the work day, but then it would have to allow every other worker an equal time away from the production line during the work day for any or no reason at all. If the employees don't like the rules let them work somewhere else."

That's a lame excuse. Sure, companies have the right to make their own rules. But workers have the right to expect those rules to be reasonable... that's why they've got a union in the first place. Would we have the same laissez faire attitude if employees were forbidden to leave their post for, say, a bathroom break?

Hell, that was once the case. I'm glad workers of that era didn't allow bad policy to go unchallenged.

I'm not sure I agree that a solution necessitates equating ritual prayer with "any or no reason at all", but maybe it does. So what? As the article notes, Swift doesn't have a problem permitting unscheduled smoke breaks.

A ten minute break? That's not even worth discussing? That's an issue worth humiliations, terminations... worth isolating the Somali community? I can't believe that's too big a burden for Swift, especially considering what you ask the employees to surrender: peace with their God and themselves.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I'm still stuck on the fact that the employees have chosen not to exercise other options. The Somali workers do have other options - the article mentions other shifts and then states that the second shift is more desirable. I understand some people might have conflicts on the other shifts, but they have conflicts on this one too.

Compromise would be to move to another shift of the same employer - not to expect an entire production line to shut down. And there is a difference between one or two people leaving at various times to have a smoke or go to the bathroom (which takes about 5 minutes) and dozens of people leaving to pray (which takes considerably longer). I'm sure the company would much rather not shut down the production line - they certainly would not do that for spite. And they would probably love to avoid the negative press.

I'm sympathetic to religious claims, but I have little sympathy for situations in which people set themselves up to be hurt and then claim damages. The employees have options; they are choosing not to use them.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

"Compromise would be to move to another shift of the same employer - not to expect an entire production line to shut down. "

I don't think that's they're expectation, it certainly isn't mine. Again, does the line shut down for every bathroom break, every smoke break? Everytime there's a bug going around? And don't these employees receive regular scheduled breaks, anyway?

We're talking about 5% of the workforce leaving in small shifts. Considering the plant can accommodate all of these other "complications, there's no reason to think this problem is insurmountable.

I can't say for sure that the individuals affected can't switch shifts. Obviously, that's a wise and practical solution if it's applicable. I have to think, however, that isn't the case for every worker involved. If it were, why would so many quit, and why would so many risk getting fired? Maybe there's something else going on, but it's disturbing that you seem skeptical only of this claim from the employees without being even a little suspicious towards the company's claim that they can't accommodate a ten minute break (except for all those breaks they already grant and accept).

There's questions enough for both sides - questions to ask of Swift, questions the employees should ask of themselves. That's exactly why Swift should engage the community in a dialog, why they should (if neccesary) be forced into a dialog with the union or CAIR or some interested party. If CAIR's plan is unworkable, let them demonstrate that to the employees directly. Even if compromise, ultimately, is impossible, it can only benefit Swift to treat these workers with respect... to hear them out and demonstrate some effort to accommodate their needs.

"I'm sure the company would much rather not shut down the production line - they certainly would not do that for spite. And they would probably love to avoid the negative press."

Until and unless they engage the Somalis and their representatives, they deserve the bad press. Maybe Swift still gets the final word, but a dialog is the least they can provide.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If a christian tried to do something like this it would never be allowed. Ryan and this web site would take great pleasure in mocking their beliefs and try to bring up some kind of separation issue.

Christians are one of the last acceptiable groups to discriminate against. I actually have no problem with this as I am NOT a christian, but lets be honest -- Ryan and this website would not care if a christian was having a similar problem.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

Don't even go there, man. I may be passionate about this issue, but I appreciate the debate and I've tried to keep things professional. I've done nothing to warrant this outrageous attack on my character and my own identity as a Christian.

Go troll somewhere else. I'm not biting anymore.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1. Ryan, I was the firsy anonymous and have not posted since. Not sure if the other/s is the same person or not. I know you will not admit you are off base with this but seriously you are.
Work has got to be done. And other posters are right about a Christian taking time to pray during work. My GOD Little boy, yes I said god because I'm christian and yes I said little boy because you have not lived/worked in the real world yet. You may be smart and probably are just as Kyle is but you need to get beyond your copy/paste "journalism." I respect Kyle a lot and agree with him 50% of the time. I do respect you for taking the time to learn. But realize you ahve not learned everything. Nor have I. But work is work. I also suspect you value the seperation of church and state, however seperation of church and commerce struggles with you?? Copy paste that after you think about it. Good luck Ryan, and thank you for giving your time and creating debate. we are all better for it and we all should be willing to learn from it. You included.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Ryan for learning. Next step is to admit you may have been off base. It will really help you> It has always helped me when I used to be you and just looked for something to "jump" on to stir the pot. Did you learn?Silence tells me you did.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...


I'm sorry, but I'm just not interested in a debate that's all about me. I suppose that's one of the pitfalls of blogging under my real name, but this issue really deserves a more serious discussion. Whatever my age, whatever my experience... that doesn't make these employees right or wrong. This issue is a lot bigger than me.

Your compliments are appreciated, as is your advice (certainly we all benefit from remembering our limits and our weaknesses), but it has no bearing on this issue and no relevance to this debate.

Something to keep in mind while interpreting my silence.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I once worked for a born again Chrisitan in a western Nebraska dealership. For a while, the owner opened and closed all sales meetings with prayer. At some point, the owner hired one of his church members as a salesman. This person immediately took it up the mission of converting all the other salespeople walking with Bible in hand from sales station to sales staion praying aloud and declaring us all sinners. We tried to ignore him. We tried to train him in selling to help him in a new career. However, he was interupting our ability to do our jobs. We complained to the owner and voiced our opinion about the prayer in sales meetings. Our patience had run out. Everyone was there to make a living including the owner and his church associate. The owner changed ways and we all helped trained the new person in selling, who did rather well before returning to a Christian based career.
I now live in a huge urban area in another state. My work is described as representing persons of multi-colored, multi-cultured communities that are oppressed. We teach them about coming to America, being in Amercia and how to live in America. Yes, we have freedoms and liberty here not available in other countries - which is why people come to America. However, there is some structure to the laws to allow all persons to be free within their own beliefs and culture otherwise society would run amouck.
If I move to France, I must abide by that county's law; if I move to Canada, I must abide my that county's law; if I move to Russia, I must abide by that country's law.
So it is in Amercia.
The Muslim gentleman needs to work a different shift so he is free to worship the religion of his choice and the time he needs to worship. Perhaps, Swift could advise him of that choice.
The man in the western Nebraska dealership was told by his co-workers to pray on your time at your own place of worship - work is not the place nor is it his right to infringe on those people whose beliefs differ from his. Every one has a different perception of truth and freedom. The important point is that in Amercia we are free to worship as we choose or not choose within the boundries of respecting others.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

Thank you for sharing that experience, I found it helpful and illuminating.

As I've said before, I think workers have the right to expect company policy to be reasonable. That doesn't mean blanket protection of religious practices at work because some of those practices (like excessive evangelism, as you illustrated) constitute an unreasonable burden on the business. I'm just not convinced a ten minute break is such an unreasonable request.

The other issue, in my opinion, is that of respect. This isn't something employees have a right to demand of their employers, it's something every human being has the right to expect of every other. The Swift Company hasn't shown it. Even if this demand is unreasonable, even if it can not be accommodated, there must be a better way of addressing this problem than kicking people out the door and refusing to engage their community. In your story (from the sounds of it), the employee was treated with all due patience and respect and respected his employer's demands in return. That's the kind of positive result we could see if only Swift were to approach this issue more constructively.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a new faith in leberal Nebraska after reading this. Nobody agrees with Ryan and actually that is comforting to a point. It means that Nebraska Dems for the most part agree that work comes first. We are not bleeding hearts all the way for any cause. Thank you all posteres and thank you Ryan for bringing the debate. You were wrong according to the NNN readers and I hope you learn. I also hope you stop copying others posts. Why?? Shows a bit of laziness on your part. You probably need another break(;
Thanks for posting. It has been fun to read.

Blogger Ryan Anderson said...

"I also hope you stop copying others posts. Why?? Shows a bit of laziness on your part. You probably need another break(;
Thanks for posting. It has been fun to read."

You're welcome.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who said debate couldn't be fun?

( :
( ;

can't wait for the next post.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth from an old time Liberal on the other side of sixty, I agree completely with Ryan. His post is not about the work being done or not being done. It is learning to accommodate other peoples' religious and ethnic values.

Only a fool makes rules absolutely arbitrary.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just when you start having faith in Neb. Lib's Jen-Something posts.

Tolerance, YES. But the work must get done in Nebraska. Work comes first, period-dot-comma..,

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am fine with respecting other people's religious beliefs. But there has to be a happy medium between "get everything i want, damn others" and "sue".

Robert Nelson did a column about this in the World Herald this week with more details about Swift's attempts at accomodations. It seems that Swift did offer a different shift to effected workers and got almost no response. Furthermore, it does cause production to shut down because the vast majority of Somali workers are all on this same sunset shift and if dozens leave at the same time, the line goes down. Not the same as one or two people leaving for the restroom.

Bottomline, everyone should be treated with respect and not harassed. But you can't expect everyone to bend to your demands and make no attempt at compromise. Until I see the workers do more than complain, I'm not going to feel that bad.

Blogger Dinah Lord said...

"It is learning to accommodate other peoples' religious and ethnic values."

They came here - why aren't they accommodating us?

Or obeying the plant rules?

At JBS Swift the whole assembly line shuts down for breaks and all employees have to take their breaks at the same time. That is why this special religious accommodation is a problem. Shutting down the line is an expensive proposition in an business with very slim margins. [www_rockymountainnews_com]

All of these walkouts are being coordinated by unindicted terror conspirators, CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

It is part of a concerted Ramadan campaign, their legal jihad, to target US companies and schools, using our judicial system to obtain special religious accommodation.

JBS Swift was also targeted back in 2007. CAIR was there. [www_rockymountainnews_com]

There was a similar walkout at the JBS Swift in Greeley, CO this week. CAIR was there. [www_greeleytribune_com]

There was the same prayer problem at a school in MN. CAIR was there. [minnesota_publicradio_org]

Are you beginning to see a pattern here?


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